Episode 9 (of 18)
I came out through the revolving doors and into the crowds of the London streets in a bit of a state and I don’t mind admitting it. At first I just walked anywhere – along avenues, arcades, across squares, dodging the traffic on autopilot. Then I began to slow and start to take an interest in where I was and, more worryingly, what I was going to do.
What does a man do when he is feeling overwhelmed by a variety of sharp emotions; anger, shock, outrage, fear …….?
I knew what to do – I needed a drink and, truth be told, more than one.
My entrance into The Grapes was not a success. I opened the door and moved instantaneously into a hot, crowded jostle of very successful city types who were largely pissed and having a very good time on their after office drinks. I hated them. They had salaries and bonuses – and anyway the route to the bar looked well beyond a man all but broken on the wheel of life’s harshness.
I fared little better at the next two but then found a back street pub. It was as crowded as the others but in between the front and back bars ran a wide-ish corridor, along one side of which ran a narrow continuation of the two bars. A ledge wide enough to put your drink on and two, empty bar stools beckoned and un hitching my rucksack and taking off my coat I slumped gratefully onto one. I waylaid a bartender travelling between the two bars and a few moments later had 2 pints of Pride in front of me.
I studied them for a while and then, with resolution picked up the left hand one. Now I have to own to being none too proficient at the important masculine art of necking pints. One of my more cringy moments was standing on a chair, on a table in the middle of the local rugby club bar being urged to empty a pint of ordinary bitter at speed to chants of ‘get it down you zulu warrior, get it down you zulu chief, chief, chief.’ A public relations disaster was only (slightly) averted by my pouring nearly half of the pint over my head – the bit I couldn’t drink under pressure – but you don’t want to hear about that and, in all honesty, I don’t want to write about it. Nevertheless, on this occasion I seemed to have little trouble emptying the first pint. The second was taken at a steadier pace, but even so both pints were consumed inside a very respectable minute.
I found that I liked this drinking thing and wanted to hone my newly acquired necking skills further. Soon I had another two pints in front of me and was contemplating my approach. I thought I was being wise when I took pint three at a steady rate of gulps and then settled in to really enjoy the fourth. I was about halfway down the glass when I became aware of a figure in a bulky trench coat and a fedora hat pulling himself up onto the stool beside me.
‘Can I get you a drink?’ he lifted his hat from his head as he turned to look at me and placed it on the bar.
‘Can I get you a drink, I think you deserve one.’
‘The way they’ve treated you …. after a lifetime of public service.’
Crikey Moses! I needed to think. I drained the remainder of pint 4. How do you think? Where do you start? Ah yes … what do I need to think about? This man … this young man, in his twenties, certainly not 30 yet …. who, what, how ….?’
A bottle of vodka appeared on the bar with two glasses. The stranger poured a large slug into each one then held one out for me.
‘My name is Yuri,’ he raised his glass.
‘Oh ….. yes ….. mine’s Bor.’
Glasses chinked and down it went. Well it went down Yuri’s throat but mine seemed to make a bolt for freedom via my nasal passages. He slammed his glass down on the bar and I exploded into coughs and sneezes.
The glasses were refilled and we did it again. This time I had more success and although gasping and with tears in my eyes I managed to slam the glass down just after him.
He beamed at me ‘That’s better.’
He was right, it was better, thoughts seemed to have more clarity, I was back in the game!
‘Who are you and how do you know about me?’
‘It is my job to know a lot of things, and right now I know you’ve been treated shabbily by the British Establishment and I want to help.’
‘By buying me drinks?’
‘Yes ….. and making you an offer you will find hard to refuse.’
‘An offer …. of what?’
My heart sank …. another job offer …. the last one proved a nightmare …… I still didn’t want a job …. but how was I …
‘How are you going survive without your pension?’
I indicated the bottle and two more slugs were poured and sunk.
‘What kind of job?’
‘We want to use your expertise in tidal analysis.’
‘It’s The Solent, something very odd going on down there, four tides a day apparently and a British Naval base on its edge. We want you to look into it, write a report …. all undercover of course, none of this user participation nonsense,’ he bellowed out a laugh and then re slugged the glasses.
‘But I don’t know anything worth knowing about tides ….’
‘The Review of tidal movements in the Solway ..’
‘Was pure nonsense, everyone …’
‘Oh please!’ Yuri’s tone sharpened, ‘what do you take us for, fools?’
‘Sorry?’ I was beginning to re- assess the thought clarifying efficacy of vodka.’
‘We know the report presented to the select committee was nonsense, and that was just a decoy to cover up a scoping exercise on moving the atomic submarine fleet from Faslane.’
‘Oh I know it came to nothing and they would have had the wrath of the Scottish Nationalists to deal with – but it kept us guessing for a bit!’ He laughed again and clapped me on the back before the bottle was emptied.
I stared at him trying to judge whether I could say anything meaningful.
‘Who are you?’
‘I told you – Yuri.’
‘No, who do you work for?’
‘Oh come, we are not children,’ the sharpness had returned, ‘your father was a member of the party … you yourself were a member of the party and …..’
‘That was years ago ….. and I left to join the Labour Party’
‘You were told to join the Labour Party,’ he blew out his cheeks, ‘and then you went AWOL by joining the Social Democrats.’
The latter was something I wasn’t particularly proud of – but I soon after disengaged from politics as the increasing seniority of the posts I held in the Civil Service precluded any involvement.
‘Just think about it…… we’ll call by in a little bit to see what you’ve decided , oh .. and here,’ he produced a brown envelope from inside his coat, ‘is a little something to tide you over … we pay well, with generous expenses.’
I put the envelope in my rucksack and then he helped me off the stool, through the still crowded front bar and out into the street. He hailed a cab and despite my protestations at the expense, paid the cabbie to take me home – and to make sure I got safely inside my house.
— x —
I had been aware for some time that Dad was living under somewhat straightened circumstances, the house started to feel a bit dilapidated and the van seemed to be off the road more than it was on. He had explained that there had been some bureaucratic mix up over his pension that was taking some time to sort out. For the first time in my life he seemed to have lost his normal cheery, positive, mischievous self. He seemed worried and distracted.